Sarah Cole


On her book Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020

In a nutshell

Inventing Tomorrow sets out to tell a story of 20th century literary culture that follows an entirely different path from the one that has dominated academia for the last fifty years. Rather than taking modernism as its starting point (whether to analyze, critique, or expand), it asks how the first half of the 20th century would look if we begin, instead, with the most widely read English writer of this period, and one whom modernism itself saw as fundamentally its other, H. G. Wells. Wells, I argue, delivers a profoundly different 20th century from the one bequeathed by modernism, yet resonating with contemporary concerns and popular culture. Palpitating with the technology and encompassing the world trends that in many ways defined this historical period, Wells’s work claims its own place as a driver of political and cultural change. Over a half-century (1895-1946) of nonstop writing, which comprised an array of genres and styles, Wells hoped that his work would help to coax the world into the shape he ardently believed to be its destiny: a single world state, free of war and injustice. An avowed utopian, Wells offered his contemporaries a voice they deeply sought. His enormous body of writing produced a powerful sense of literature as a force for social change and proffered itself as an incubator to propel ones dreams and to sculpt ideals into imaginative shape. At the same time, his imagination was drawn into the dark and terrifying; his visions were—and remain—often disturbing.

My argument, in short, is that Wells transforms the view of a literary period that was rich in innovation, yet whose breadth of experiment opens much more widely, and changes its character, when we consider what he offered. Wells bursts into the scene with an unfamiliar and generative set of principles and accomplishments. At the same time, that unfamiliarity is perhaps only an academic one, since his ideas were so influential in the popular imagination that they seem to tap directly into our cultural unconscious, having provided the germ for a huge swath of contemporary popular forms and fantasies. Formally, Wells’s approach to literature as a force in the world and his writing styles provide a bracing new set of cues for a literary culture formed in modernism’s image. To give just several examples: Wells felt no need to banish the pedagogic voice from his fiction. On the contrary, he saw literature as deeply embedded in the cause of education, and his books regularly both show and tell (a distinct taboo in modernism and its legacies). Another significant writerly contribution was his freedom with genre and form, where he radically innovated, melded, and mixed, as needed to push forward his vision of the world’s ills and its potential for salvation (as he saw it). Wells declared himself a journalist, facing off against modernism with its rarefied aesthetics and its narrowing of audience. Such a principle comes to look distinctly compelling for us today, when global and environmental forces once again threaten essential features of human well-being and where the democratization of knowledge and ideas is an essential value.

Thematically, Wells’s writings covered a huge breadth of topics, from time, to war, to science, to government, to gender, to the nature and fate of humanity. I consider the range and complexity of his presentations in each of these broad areas. One key feature of my book is that it engages Wells’s full body of writing (whereas the vast majority of Wells critics limit themselves to a few titles from the first 10-15 years of his 50-year writing career) and considers how his work entered the cauldron of cultural and literary politics. My most salient message is that when we take account of Wells, we discover crucial features of this period’s literary ambitions and achievements, and, more, that we encounter some of the most compelling imaginative formations of the 20th century, and our own time as well.